The Indonesian Railways prestige train, "Argogede," makes the uphill run from crowded, muggy Gambir Station in Jakarta to the cool hills of Bandung in West Java in three hours. Vistas change with altitude.
Rice paddies that texture flat land around Jakarta give way to tea plantations as temperature cools. Tea plants grow in neatly clipped, orderly rows, a linear topiary landscape that undulates with the hilly terrain. Growing at still higher altitudes, forests and crisp mountain greenery backdrops the plantations. It is a sight to remember.
Altitude, spectacular mountain views, and cool weather have made Bandung, the capital of West Java, a popular holiday destination since colonial days when the Dutch established the city as a Hill Station to offer relief from oppressive tropical heat that debilitated their European bodies.
In the early 19th century, Dutch colonials owned vast, lucrative tea plantations in the area. Planters came regularly to Bandung to recharge from the monotony of their rural lives. There they socialized and proudly paraded their new wealth and latest acquisitions. Fashionable Jalan Braga evolved into the street where the "high life" was lived, where planters promenaded, strutting in and out of the glittering shops.
Plantations switched to Chinchona in the early 20th century. Soon Bandung grew and processed 90 percent of the world supply of quinine. The renewed economic renaissance lasted until the World War II years. The boom changed the imprint of Bandung. Buildings in the latest Art Deco style were constructed one after the other. Dutch architects added new commercial buildings to the existing older structures on Jalan Braga, also building in other parts of the city.
Strong visual image
Probably the best example of the period in Bandung is the Grand Preanger Hotel, still in mint condition today. Through the years, the strict geometry of Art Deco evolved into the free-flowing "Moderne" style that reflected the 1930s obsession with the latest technology and machinery of the era. Streamlined and sleek shapes capturing the romance of ocean liners, sleek airplanes, torpedo-shaped cars are all evident in the sleek, sweeping facade of Savoy Homan Hotel (1930) by architect A F Aalbers.
Bandung Art Deco was not a Dutch transplant from Europe. Local climatic conditions and Sundanese design motifs influenced the architecture. Dibyo Hartono of the Bandung Heritage Society observed that "the cultural mixture is an integral part of a cultural continuity and part of the whole history of Indonesia." As a major educational center, Bandung attracts students from all over the Indonesian archipelago to its different universities whose campus buildings add to the architectural excellence of the city and whose extensive grounds keep the city green.
Students give the city the vibrancy of youth. They flock to interesting restaurants and out-of-the-ordinary hilltop coffee shops to while away afternoons, viewing the mountains at the edge of the city. Bandung is still a Hill Station today, a laid-back mountain city for holidays whose resident population swells with students during the week and overflows with lowland visitors on weekends.
The Art Deco district at the city center and other buildings scattered all over Bandung are stunning, unquestionably monumental. However much of Bandung's original flavor is behind the monumental. Coexisting with the grandeur of the standout architecture are the locals who live in residential neighborhoods, urban versions of the traditional Indonesian kampung (village), where wooden houses cluster tightly together as they do in rural locations.
The city is actually a collection of hillside kampungs (villages) where most Bandung residents choose to live their everyday lives, where the city pulses most and where connections to local Sundanese traditions survive. Today development threatens the future of the urban kampungs. Concrete buildings are creeping into the fringes of the neighborhood, tipping the scale from low-rise residential to medium- and high-rise.
Bandung today, still a cool and picturesque mountain resort city set in a valley amid rivers, urban forests, open spaces and parks, was originally designed for a population of 750,000. Its present resident population of three million strains facilities. To prevent development from changing the unique image of Bandung forever, local residents have committed to the conservation of Bandung's buildings, environment and culture. They have established the Bandung Society for Heritage Conservation in 1987. It has now over 500 members from different fields and professions. Voluntary contributions fund the oldest heritage organization in Indonesia.
Bandung Heritage members have been extremely active in preservation causes. Their lobby to protect the architectural heritage of the city has resulted in some local legislation. Members have inventoried and cataloged most of the heritage architecture in the city and other neighboring West Java cities and towns as well. Believing that the identity of Bandung, derived from its unique culture and heritage, is the city's most important preserve, the Society's activities strengthen and enhance the identity and image of the city. It further seeks to preserve and develop local Sundanese art and cultural traditions.
Bandung Heritage maintains close links with other heritage societies in the country and with government cultural agencies to standardize the conservation practice in Indonesia. Now may be the time for the different heritage societies existing in our Southeast Asian region to meet and learn from each other, and to finally find out that great gains have been done in our region for conservation.